Written by Adam Latham
Landscape lighting can be accomplished with line voltage (120v) or with low voltage (12v). Each method has advantages and disadvantages. It’s not difficult to install a low-voltage system yourself. You’ll need to have an outdoor 120v receptacle near where you’d like to make the lighting improvements. Local lighting supply houses and big-box retailers offer system components, including transformers, fixtures, lamps (bulbs), wire, and educational materials. These systems offer the ability to easily and safely adjust the location of fixtures as plants mature or when you’d like to change the design for some other reason. Depending on the quality of the components, low-voltage systems may be more expensive to install than line voltage systems. But because of their low cost to operate, they can make up the difference in installation cost.
Line voltage systems do not require transformers and are easily understood by homeowners. However, these systems are more expensive to operate than 12v systems, and alterations to the system layout are difficult to make and potentially dangerous. For these reasons, I recommend limiting 120v systems to small systems close to or attached to the home and its door-side light switches.
The Design Side
In its simplest and most common form, everyday landscape lighting is thought of as purely functional, meeting a household’s need for nighttime safety. For example, a light is needed to shine in a particular location for a stated purpose — lighting a set of steps to mitigate a tripping hazard, say, or lighting at the door for security reasons — and a fixture is selected to do that singular job. The visual results of the selection of both the fixture and the amount of light have about equal chances of being appropriate and meeting the need, or being ineffective and possibly dangerous. Perhaps the only decorative component homeowners think of is what the fixture looks like. This way of thinking is actually upside-down. Whether lighting is provided via line voltage or low-voltage, the lighting design objective should be the same: see the light and not the source of the light. In those cases where you do want to showcase the fixture, careful attention has to be paid to proper mounting height to avoid glare.
Outdoor lighting is all about illumination for beauty and safety, not showcasing the style of light fixture. You still need to select a light fixture for a stated purpose (ask yourself “why light?”), but now you can view the fixture style as unimportant because you really don’t want to see it anyway. For landscape lighting, I recommend that the light source should blend with the surroundings; black, brown, weathered copper and bronze are good colors for the garden. Imagine how your landscape would appear without six-foot-tall post lights. Why would you want a post light that shines in your eyes anyway? If a path needs to be lit at night, the best way to do it is with down-lighting, or throwing light from knee-level bollards or path lights. Using down-lighting is a way to add more effective and natural moonlight-style lighting. For lighting a path near a house, a fixture matching the house’s color can be mounted in the house’s soffit or an earth-toned light can be mounted 15 feet up in a tree, and the light will shine down and pool on the walk without glare to pedestrians. Add a few path lights in key locations, such as steps, or a change in direction, and you’ve accomplished evening security goals with interesting lighting effects.
For more dramatic effects, up-lighting and backlighting can be used to show off interesting plant forms and textures. Without their leaves, trees and shrubs with horizontal branching patterns like flowering dogwood and redvein enkianthus become more evident and are perfect specimens for backlighting. New fallen snow nestled in the peeling bark of a Heritage river birch or in the deeply grooved bark of an old tupelo can be softly illuminated for an interesting close-up scene. Multi-trunked trees that are aligned with the view from a living room or kitchen window are the perfect trees to be illuminated by up-lighting, creating an inspiring natural sculpture to be viewed at night. This method of lighting can also be used to cast shadows from plants, garden ornaments, and sculptures against exterior walls.
New to the Market
Over the last few years, LEDs for landscape lighting have been reaching more and more of the mass residential lighting market. Although initially more expensive to purchase, LEDs last thousands of hours longer and use substantially less energy than conventional incandescent and halogen lighting, making them more financially attractive when viewed over the long term. Because they don’t emit as much heat as conventional lights, LEDs may have some limitations for use as uplights in our climate, as snow and ice will not melt off the lens as quickly as they do on conventional landscape lighting. They do, however, make great down-lights, bollards, cable lights, and path lights.
I hope you’ll use this season to experience the lighting of your landscape in a new way. For more on the design side of landscape lighting, an online search for landscape lighting manufacturers will yield bountiful information and sample photos to assist you.